TOKYO - Top-ranking Japanese diplomats will go to North Korea next week at Pyongyang's invitation, Tokyo said Wednesday, the latest step in the isolated state's hesitant engagement with the outside world.
A delegation led by Junichi Ihara, who heads the Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, will visit Pyongyang for four days from Monday, top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said, as part of talks over the Cold War kidnappings of Japanese.
The move comes amid conflicting signals from North Korea, including the sudden overnight release of Jeffrey Fowle, one of three Americans detained in the country.
That came after North Korean and South Korean troops exchanged small arms fire on Sunday across their land frontier, the latest of several border skirmishes.
Japan and North Korea have no formal diplomatic ties and next week's trip will be the first time an official delegation has been sent there in a decade.
Suga said it would number around 10 and would also include representatives from the National Police Agency.
The announcement came after Tokyo said in July it was easing sanctions against Pyongyang, following the North's promise to reinvestigate what Japan says could be hundreds of abductions in the 1970s and 1980s.
Japan had expected the first report by September, but North Korea prevaricated and instead asked Japanese officials to visit the capital to "hear about details of the current state of the probe".
"The delegation will meet with members of (North Korea's) special investigation panel on 28th and 29th," Suga told reporters Wednesday.
"Delegation members will stress directly to those responsible it is the highest priority that Japan must see the abduction issue solved." North Korea admitted in 2002 that it had kidnapped 13 Japanese citizens to train its spies.
Five of the abductees returned home but Pyongyang said - without producing credible evidence - that the eight others had died.
That claim provoked uproar in Japan, where there are suspicions that dozens or perhaps even hundreds of others were taken.